Monday, April 11, 2016



A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder
By Ben Mezrich

Review by Brian J. Stinar
COMP 330
UNM Russian Degree

Ben Mezrich tells the intertwined story of Boris Berezovsky and his protege Roman Abramovich, two Russian oligarchs that rose to power during the fall of the Soviet Union in the лихие девяностые (dashing nineties.) Berezovsky rose from an obscure post as a mathematician, due to his understanding of interest rates, financial markets, other economic tools, and software, in a time when such knowledge was extremely valuable, and extremely rare. Abramovich used his skills as an entrepreneur to transition from a seller of children’s toys to oil and aluminum.

Boris Berezovsky began his meteoric rise to power using his mathematically skills to create software accounting systems for AvtoVAZ, a privatized car company. While there, he realized that the government-appointed “Red Directors” knew nothing about capitalism, and the new economic system they functioned under. His software company grew into the world’s largest Lada (model of car AvtoVAZ made) dealership. During this time, he was able to take the massive inflation of the time, and turn it to his advantage. He ordered a large number of cars for his dealerships, from the manufactures, paid a small down payment to the Red Directors (which, Mezrich says they pocketed) and then paid the rest off after a long period of time. Everything had insane-o inflation. Having fixed interest rates for money owed to the manufacturers, while inflating the prices of the cars sold to consumers, allowed him to purchase his supplies for almost nothing. None of this is illegal - it is arbitrage played on differences in interest rates. Even though none of this was illegal, someone still blew up his car (with him in it, which sent him to the hospital for a long time.) He didn’t give up.

Berezovsky became involved with the media. He purchased a controlling share of Channel One Russia (OTR Television) with Yeltsin’s permission. Berezovsky placed an extremely popular anchorman and producer, Vladislav Listyev, as CEO of Channel One. At the time, advertising was a fiercely competitive industry in Russia. Listyev wanted to bring all advertising sales into direct Channel One control, and out of the hands of unauthorized middlemen such as a consortium of (corrupt) shareholders for actually selling advertisements. Within months, Listyev was gunned down on his stairway. Huge amounts of cash were left on him, which made everyone think that his murder was a political, or business, assassination. To me, this seemed sort of like an aside in the story. However, after discussing this with a number of my Russian friends, every single one of them either knew about this, or remembered exactly what they were doing when they heard the news about his death. Listyev was immensely popular as an anchorman, and his stance against corruption in Channel One made him into a martyr. I believe the author put this in the book because of its extreme cultural significance, and to illustrate Berezovsky’s role.

Berezovsky used his position in the media to promote the government, and to continue to be on good terms with Yeltsin. He was extremely influential with the president’s daughter and part of their inner circle, called the “Family.”

Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich met on a yacht party, and became friends. Berezovsky was older than Abramovich, and saw an opportunity to help the younger man, grow together, and have a protege. Berezovsky became Abramovich’s ‘roof’ or krisha (крыша.) This is a concept sort of like a feudal lord - a protector, teacher, and someone that you pay money to regularly for their services. Probably the best example of this relationship comes from this paragraph:
Abramovich nodded, because he understood. Berezovsky didn’t need to spell out what these expenses might be; he wasn’t signing an employment contract, or even a partnership deal. Abramovich had come to him because of who he was - and what he brought to the table. His politicial connections, his protection, his roof. No doubt, Abramovich had done his research. He knew all about OTR, the Logovac Club, and Berezovsky’s lifestyle. He knew exactly what sort of deal they were about to strike.
They rose to immensely powerful and high positions together. They controlled oil, aluminum and media. Together they engineered Yeltin’s continued election, and the way he stepped down, guaranteeing Vladimir Putin a place. Berezovsky was a kingmaker. Everything was going well…

… Until Berezovsky publicly criticized Putin. Finally, the criticism culminated with how Putin handled the sinking of the Kursk, a submarine. Putin continued to place pressure on OTR, and Berezovsky, until he had to sell all of his controlling shares in major Russian industries. Abramovich realized his roof was falling, and offered a BILLION dollars to Berezovsky to end their relationship, since his roof was falling down. Berezovsky accepted.

Later, Berezovsky sued Abramovich in a court in the United Kingdom. The ruling was entirely in favor of Abramovich, and Berezovsky was labelled an unreliable witness, and delusional about his sense of self importance. He later killed himself, still fabulously wealthy.

This work reflects the realities of the dashing nineties. The author provides an entertaining story about the time, focusing on Boris Berezovsky and the people around him. The essential message it conveys is that you do not mess with the government in Russia. If you helped make two presidents, are one of the most powerful men in the world, you still do not use your power to criticize those in control of the government.

My opinion of this work is that it was a very fun story to read. Whenever I would ask Russian people about their opinions of the events the author portrayed, they were exactly in line with what the author discussed. I actually cared about the characters, and felt like they were real people. The author said he heard this story firsthand, from someone involved in the entire thing. I believe him. 

I highly recommend you purchase this book. It is available here.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

San Diego

This weekend my girlfriend and her family invited me to go with them to San Diego. Waking up extremely early, and flying, wasn't so fun, but it was fun once we got into San Diego.

Today we went to Seaport Village and Coronado island, and the beach there. After that, we went to a Russian store to buy ingredients for dinner, and had a nice Russian dinner.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Soviet Responses to Catastrophe: War, Holocaust, and Cultural Production in the Soviet Union

Today I attended a talk titled Soviet Responses to Catastrophe: War, Holocaust, and Cultural Production in the Soviet Union. This talk was mostly about Jewish writings, in Yiddish, in the Soviet Union during the period when the Red Army was fighting against Hitler. The speaker talked about two collections of songs, short stories, and Jewish folklore that were unpublished. They were unpublished because the Soviet censors did not approve them, but the writings were kept in a collection someplace, back East I think. The "Cabinet of Jewish Culture" was the Soviet group that put together one manuscript. Later, that group was disolved and members were sent to the Gulag, since any kind of Jewish ethnic, or national, unification wasn't an ideologically correct viewpoint. Overall, I'm happy I went to this talk. The speaker had an interesting subject matter.

I'm getting a new phone soon... 

The Presenter - and the backs of two people's heads.

The original documents were pretty cool looking - you could see censor stamps on some of them, others were written on the back of whatever paper scraps Jews could get inside concentration camps or ghettos. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016


When I was in high school, I took a home economics class my final year. This was mostly because I completed basically all required classes, and I didn't really want to have a completely open period with nothing to do (since I lived like 40 minutes away from the school, and I was my sister's ride) and there were not any academic courses offered during that period.

The home economics class turned out to be really, really fun. We learned how to cook many different dishes, and had a small cafeteria where people could come and eat for lunch (for about $3.) At the end of the year, we used all that money we earned from the cafe and went to a REALLY fancy four star restaurant in Phoenix (there were only about seven of us in the class and I was the only guy.) After cooking for half the year, the teacher decided we should learn to sew. The sewing did not go as well as the cooking. I patched all of my screwed up work clothes, put buttons on everything, and then started making a shirt. The shirt looked like a tunic, and generally sucked. Most of the class had a similar experience - useful patching / repair work, and then crap. After taking a look my shirt/tunic, the teacher asked if everyone would like to get back into cooking, and we all said yes. So we went back to cooking, and our small cafe. Thanks to that class I have some basic cooking skills, and can avoid starving, eating out all the time, or malnourished due to a steady intake of Ramen Noodles.

One of my favorite things to cook is pretzels. I still have the physical piece of paper recipe from high school. 

My girlfriend and I think it's fun to prepare meals together, since it's an activity we both can do, contribute to, and then we have something nice afterward. I like working on projects. She never made dough before, so the rising of it was a bit surprising to her.

(White flour version)

We made pretzels together twice. The first time we followed the recipe exactly, and the second time we added whole wheat flour instead of wheat flour, for slightly less than half the flour. If you want to substitute flour, I highly recommend doing so with way less than half, since half wheat flour makes the dough much more difficult to work.

Her little brother LOVES these pretzels, and eats most of them whenever I bring them over. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Bluetooth Headphone Repair

I really like Bluetooth headphones. They are extremely convenient, especially while biking and listening to audio books. Sometimes, they break though. The last time mine broke, I decided to fix them myself by cannibalizing an old set of headphones, and a soldering iron.

First, I started watching different youtube videos on how to repair Bluetooth headsets. Basically, the kind of headset I like is the same across different brands and models. They are probably manufactured at the same Chinese factory, with very minor differences, and the same fundamental design. This was the most helpful video for me.

After I was ready to begin, I took apart my headset. While it was apart, I touched the soldering iron to the connections for the actual broken earbud. I removed it, stripped the plastic ear covers to use later, and then threw away the broken min-speaker.

Next, I cut a working headphone out from it's connection, stripped the leads, and then soldered that into the position that I removed from the previous step.

I then powered up (with everything disconnected) to make sure things worked. They worked, and I then reassembled everything, and it worked.

The number one "gotcha" is making sure you have enough slack in your new replacement headphone. Mine were too tight, and the lack of slack pulled the entire headset up, off my neck, when I was wearing it. That was pretty uncomfortable.

Notice how the new speaker wire is super short compared to the existing speaker wire - this is uncomfortable.

This was 100% not an efficient use of my time. It makes way more sense to throw away your broken pair, and buy a new one, unless you make minimum wage or less. It's like $9 (free shipping) from the link I shared above. However, I like repairing things. It's been a while since I did any electronics projects, and it was fun. Plus, I had a set of headphones where the speakers still worked, but the jack was sort of messed up. It was fun combining two broken things into one working thing.